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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES in VT » VERMONT (all topics) » Joseph George Davidson
     BY: Thomas Edward
Joseph George Davidson

The Man Who Gave a Mountain

By Thomas Edward | July 22, 2010

The man who gave away Mt. Equinox, one of the largest mountains in Vermont, is a story for all seasons reflecting a generosity and magnanimity of spirit that rivaled the size of the entire Taconic Mountain Range.

His Early Life

Joseph George Davidson was born on February 7, 1892, in New York City.   He received his bachelor and masters of Arts degrees in chemistry in 1912 from the University of Southern California. After he received his doctorate in Chemistry from Columbia University, he worked in the army in WWI as a second Lieutenant in the development of mustard gas.   In WWII he headed Union Carbide’s immense and top secret gaseous-diffusion project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee which was an integral step in the development of the atomic bomb. After Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Davidson received a presidential citation for his work on the bomb which was received with mixed emotions because of the great loss of life.   Dr. Davidson had been involved in two of the most destructive acts in human history and they bore heavily on his conscience.

He was a man of wit and charm, and candor, combined with inventiveness, generosity and honor. These traits contrasted his other side of imperiousness, sublime determination, and stubbornness with a dash of cantankerous orneriness. He became vice president of Union carbide and president of the board of chairmen of Union Carbide’s Chemical Companies Division. Davidson held twenty-eight patents for such products as Bakelite and various chemicals such as lacquers, antiknock fuels, pickling inhibitors, and laminated safety glass.

A Mountain Home to Match the Man

In the 1940s, Davidson began to purchase tracts of land on Equinox Mountain just outside of Arlington, Vermont.   Eventually he owned eleven square miles, practically the entire mountain.   Delayed by the war, George completed his goal of building a road to the top of the mountain, once he had control of the land. He completed the road in 1947 and it was fully paved by 1953.   The road runs upward for over 5 miles and twists with hair pin turns, but has several turnouts for scenic views and vehicle breakdown on route to the summit.   It is considered one of the best engineered and is the longest paved toll road in the United States. He had also considered another “big” idea concerning the building of a ski resort on his mountain, but decided to abandon the idea after much consultation. Davidson instead built his future home “Windswept” in the 1950s while considering retirement.   His mountain top Valhalla featured a huge panoramic view of the mountain and its surrounding valleys.

Giving Something Back

After he moving into his new home, he received a visit from Brother Paul a novice from the Carthusians, an ancient order of Roman Catholic cloistered monks. Their mother house is in Chartreuse, France holds the recipe for the green/yellow liqueur that bears the town’s name - Chartreuse.   Brother Paul’s community is the only one in the Americas and had settled temporarily at Whittingham, Vermont. He was not only a brother in training, but a civil engineer interested in using a small nearby water stream to generate electric power. He had heard of Davidson’s interest in hydropower and sought his opinion. After several meetings the stream was determined too small to support power generation, but a friendship developed and Davidson invited Brother Paul to dinner.   Davidson’s wife, Madeline, served excellent food and the meat, normally absent from a monk’s meager diet, was particularly appealing to the young Jewish convert to Catholicism. Many subsequent dinners were held with the brother at the Davidson’s home.

It was through Brother Paul’s friendship that the Davidson’s met other members of the monastic community. One of the Carthusian’s main problems was the lack of seclusion from the man-made disturbances.   Ideally they needed to be located in a mountain valley. Their current home was located too close to a highway and traffic noise interfered with their quest for silence. Mrs. Davidson first suggested that since she and her husband had no children, it might be ideal to bequeath land for a Carthusian Charterhouse.   Davidson’s abandoned ski lodge project offered potential because of its isolated location. It was remodeled and the priests and brothers began moving in during the summer of 1960. Davidson began the transfer of land to the Order in fifty-acre parcels for tax purposes and eventually he turned over several thousand acres. Madeleine was to be taken care of by the Carthusians under the terms of the gift. Plans were laid for a large Charterhouse by the Architectural firm of Victor-Christ Janer and Associates.   It was fabricated using Vermont “Rock of Ages” granite, adding a somber appearance to the new “Charterhouse of the Transfiguration”. It opened in the spring of 1970 for one day to the general public, after which no women, not even Mrs. Davidson were allowed.

Davidson not only gifted almost 11 square miles of mountain to his adopted Order of Catholic Monks, but gave them several revenue producing entities to help provide for daily necessities and maintenance of the programs placed in their care.   Skyline drive has been alluded to as the “Skyway to Heaven” because of its fast ascent to the summit.   The toll road and the thousands of tourists who come annually to the mountain generate income to maintain operations, meet the monks simple needs, provide funds for the good of the order, and support their corporal works of mercy.   Revenue also comes with excess power from the hydro-electric generators which goes into the Vermont grid.   This can be especially rewarding during peak power demand periods.   In addition there is a small gift shop. Many of the artifacts sold are made by the monks themselves.

Mt. Equinox Today

There is a scenic Skyline Drive toll road, in addition to being a tourist excursion picnic area, and a natural settings respite for photo buffs, is also the location of an Annual Hill Climb Road Race.   It is the longest paved road hill climb in the world and only Pike’s Peak predates the race on this continent.   In 1973 the Vintage Sports Car Club of America began sanctioning the races.   The 5.2 mile course to the summit meanders around like a giant serpent. It starts at the toll house at the base of the mountain and is free to spectators.

The two lakes constructed on the mountain serve as flood control. Soil conservation and water storage with impounded water used to run hydro electric power generation stations. Its completion marked the largest soil conservation project ever undertaken by a private individual in New England. The hydroelectric generators came on line in 1959 and have provided power for the mountain for over 40 years.

There is a granite monument to Mr. Barbo, Davidson’s only dog not far from the summit. The dog was his constant companion and made the rounds with him and his wife on their mountain.   Then one day during the deer hunting season, the dog was shot and killed. George was livid and immediately posted the mountain “No Hunting” and hired a sheriff’s deputy to enforce it.   It remains posted to this day for safety reasons as the monks in their long brown robes go for frequent walks on the mountain trails. Davidson spent time selecting and preparing his dog’s grave site and markings as it is inscribed in Mr. Barbo’s memory and visited by thousands of tourists who travel each year to the summit.   The legend of his dog remains and has become a part of the local folk lore in the hearts and memory visions of all.

Mt. Equinox Tomorrow

Davidson died in 1969. He was a “pioneer not just in the uses of technology, but in the conservation of natural resources by means of that very technology.” He left a living legacy in the silent monks of the Carthusian order.

An Equinox Wind Farm is on the drawing board and in process of obtaining the required permits for installation of five 260 - foot wind turbines with 130-foot blades turning at 16rpm.   They will generate enough power for 4,000 homes, while preventing 95,000 pounds of pollution per day. This is the equivalent of taking 2,900 cars off the road or saving 5,800 gallons of oil a day.


  1. “The Deed of Gift, ‘The Cantankerous Chemist.’” Timothy Murphy, Story Line Press, 1998.
  2. “More Than Just a Mountain.” Historical Pages Company, 2004.
  3. Mt. Equinox - a series of monographs on the internet:
    • The Early Times
    • The Mountain
    • Annual Hill Climb
    • The Lake Madeleine Project
    • Overview of the Hydro Electric Project
    • The Windmills
    • Equinox Wind Farm
  4. Carthusian Order pamphlets from the Monastery of the Transfiguration, the order, regulations, lifestyle, history, purpose, and goals.
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